Thursday, September 24, 2015

Frank Lloyd Wright, Oak Park, Illinois

Wright’s Historic District shows how architect’s aesthetic evolved

Wright’s Historic District Oak Park, Illinois

The Arthur B. Heurtley house, built in Oak Park in 1902, is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early prairie-style houses. Wright designed it to blend naturally into the landscape.

With Carla Anderson

     When we’d finished the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio tour in Oak Park, Ill., we knew the walking audio tour of the surrounding historic district would be a must.

     Happy to follow the advice of Patricia Schultz’s list of “1000 Places to See Before You Die,” we took this tour of the world’s largest concentration of buildings designed by Wright.

     The audio segments recounted the evolution of Wright’s work during the first 20 years of his architectural career. Covering about eight or nine blocks, the walk includes 20 buildings; 11 houses and the Unity Temple were designed by Wright, and several other homes were designed by competing architects of the times, giving us a chance to see the contrast of styles.

     Several of Wright’s early homes, such as the Robert Parker House built in 1892, looked typically Victorian except for some minor changes, such as the different-colored shingles. Three houses together on this street are known as Wright’s bootleg houses; because he was forbidden by contract with Adler and Sullivan to work independently, he was eventually fired for surreptitiously designing this work.

     All of the houses on the tour look expensive, but some are more expensive than others. The cheapest of the houses Wright designed, the Laura Gale House, with its gravity-defying terraces, looks like a smaller edition, without the waterfall, of his famous Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania.

     We were especially impressed with the Arthur B. Heurtley house. Built in 1902, it is one of his early prairie-style houses. With its variegated brickwork, the house blended naturally into the landscape. Details we saw here would appear in many of his later works: a fireplace in the center of the house, bands of casement windows, overhangs and balconies.

     The narration on the iPod focused on what Wright was trying to do. The outside shells with modest, almost hidden entries were attractive and fit naturally into the beautiful settings of trees, shrubs and flowers. A well-lit inner space with an open floor plan with abstract geometrical shapes was extremely important to Wright. The houses on the tour are privately owned, but some of the interiors are open to the public during the mid-May Wright Plus Tour.

     Several of the houses on the tour by other architects are standard Victorian houses of the period but bigger than average. Several architects had added some features that make them more like a Wright-designed house. The Charles E. Matthews House, built in 1909 by the architects Tallmadge and Watson, was a radical change from the usual Victorian house.

     Wright considered the Unity Temple, a Unitarian Universalist church built between 1905 and 1908, his masterpiece and called it his “little jewel.” He used one material, reinforced concrete, in designing the cubist building.

     Some architects consider it to be the first modern building in the world; perhaps that’s a little overboard in terms of claims, but it does show the mystique connected with Wright’s work.

     In the National Register of Historic Places, the district is called “undoubtedly the largest concentration of early modern architecture to be found anywhere in the world.”0

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